Balloons and Potatoes in Northern Maine

It was a frosty evening at Aroostook State Park and the temperature had dropped below freezing, which explained why there were only a few campers in the campground.  In fact, I think it had been the coldest night since I’d camped on the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass in Montana at 7,700 feet a few weeks earlier, but after tumbling out of my truck in the morning, I warmed up by rubbing my hands over my one-burner propane stove going full bore.  What a wonderful $12 investment this cheapo stove had been on my trip:  cooking bratwurst in the evenings and providing a convenient hand-warmer on cold mornings like this.  The leaves on the trees at Aroostook were beautiful with the changing fall colors, but looking back on the craziness of yesterday, driving nearly 500 miles and visiting three of the 16 extreme compass points in the U.S., I was glad to be leaving northern Maine before it got any colder.

 
 
Above:  From Aroostook State Park, I continued south down U.S. Highway 1 until I reached Quoddy Head, Maine, the easternmost point of the United States.  I spent a couple hours there, then backtracked a little and camped at Cobscook Bay State Park that evening.

 

I checked out the park’s main lake, which was beautiful (and not a soul around), then I left Aroostook around 10 a.m. and headed back towards Highway 1.  As I drove down the country road making my way back to the highway, I stopped at an intersection with an intriguing sign that said, “Double Eagle II Launch Site,” with an arrow pointing to the left, the opposite way I was heading. After pondering it for a moment, I turned left and followed the rural road for a half-mile, then I saw the site and parked in an empty gravel parking area. 

I vaguely remembered the Double Eagle II but the interpretive sign here filled in the missing pieces.  Back in 1978, three Americans became the first people to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon, which was launched at this site just outside of Aroostook State Park.  The balloon carried a gondola-like structure below it for the men and traveled high in the stratosphere, and six days later it landed near Paris with the now-bearded crew intact. 

After I saw the men’s names on a plaque here, I was surprised that they were still familiar to me:  Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman.  However, I’d forgotten just about everything else about the Double Eagle II, including the fact that it had taken off from Maine.  The local folks here have commemorated the lift-off site with a quiet little park, way out here in the countryside with no fanfare and just one small sign pointing the way.   I love little “Americana” places like this and I thought it was great.

After spending about 20 minutes at the park, and not seeing another person either at the park or driving by on the nearby road, I found my way back to Highway 1 and continued my southward trek.  My goal today was Quoddy Head State Park on the coast of Maine, the easternmost point of the United States, and I figured it would take most of the day to get there.  As I headed down Highway 1, I spotted several wooden stands on the side of the road where local farmers were selling 20-pound bags of potatoes to passing motorists ridiculously cheap and on the honor system.  I would’ve gladly plunked down a few bucks for a 20-pound bag of spuds but, of course, I had no way to cook them.  In addition to being a hand-warmer, perhaps this might be a new use for my one-burner stove?

Continuing down Highway 1 and watching the rural scenes pass by, I listened to CNN radio describing the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  The commentators were discussing (what else?) Donald Trump’s latest tweet, something about a beauty pageant contestant.  Ah, politics…  

The French Foothold in America

An hour later I reached the city of Houlton and crossed over Maine’s only Interstate freeway, I-95, which led into Canada a few miles from here to the east, but I continued on U.S. Highway 1 south to the coast.  A few hours later I reached the beautiful, rugged and expansive St. Croix River, which forms the border between the U.S. and Canada, and soon afterwards I saw a sign for an approaching National Park site, the “St. Croix Island International Historic Site.” 

This intrigued me not only because I’d never been to this National Park site (I’ve visited about half of the 400+ National Park units in the U.S.), but heck, I’d never even heard of this site.  So of course, I pulled off the highway to check it out.  I walked into the Visitor Center, which was empty but for a single ranger, a friendly guy about my age who greeted me with a smile.  “Hi there.  Can I tell you about the park?” he asked as I entered.  What a helpful ranger, I said to myself, so I replied with a grin, “Sure, go ahead!”  And for the next five minutes, Ranger Jim told me the interesting story.

The nearby St. Croix Island, only a few hundred yards in length and sitting in the middle of the two-mile wide St. Croix River was, in 1604, the site of France’s first settlement in North America.  The Spanish had been in St. Augustine, Florida since 1565 and in 1585, the English had tried to establish a settlement on Roanoke Island in coastal North Carolina that failed – the famous “Lost Colony.”  So by 1604, there were no European settlements in North America outside of Florida; the first permanent English settlement, in Jamestown, Virginia, would come three years later. 

With Spain and England starting to make inroads in North America, the French figured they better get going, so in 1604 they sent a group of 79 colonists to the New World, including Samuel Champlain, and they built a small settlement here on rocky St. Croix Island, in the middle of the river, where they lived for nearly a year.  It was a hard winter, though, and about half of the settlers died.  The local Passamaquoddy Indians befriended the decimated French and nursed them back to health, and shortly afterwards the surviving French settlers moved to a better location, at Port Royal on the coast of Nova Scotia, about a hundred miles away across the Bay of Fundy. 

The French continued to expand their empire in the New World over the next 150 years until the mid-1700s, when their holdings began to recede.  First, they lost the French and Indian War to the British and ceded Canada and all lands east of the Mississippi River to the British.  Then 40 years later in 1803, the French sold the rest of their North American lands to the Americans, known as the Louisiana Purchase.  But for 200 years, the French controlled a huge chunk of North America and it all started right here at tiny St. Croix Island.  Fascinating, I told Ranger Jim – I really did say that.  I had no idea, I told him, but now I do.  And you do, too.

I thanked Ranger Jim for his explanation and hiked out to a viewpoint where I could see St. Croix Island.  After pondering the little settlement and thinking about the starving winter – what a difficult time they must've had here, similar to the situation at Jamestown a few years later but a whole lot colder (and without cheapo propane stoves to warm themselves up) – I got back on the highway and continued south.

Heading South on Maine's Highway 1

The Easternmost Point of America

An hour later, around 2:30, I reached the Maine coast and followed the signs to Quoddy Head State Park, the easternmost point of the United States and home to a beautiful red-and-white striped lighthouse built in 1858.  I first visited Quoddy Head in 1985 during my first solo drive across America and this park is what started the whole “Extreme Geographer” thing for me.  I had camped in Cobscook Bay State Park the night before and visited Quoddy Head the next morning, in early October 1985, and was the only one there.  I was fascinated to stand on the easternmost point of the United States on that chilly morning, and that’s when I started thinking about geographic extremes.  Of course, it would take me 30 years to put together a trip around America visiting such places, but the notion all started right here at Quoddy Head State Park.

I arrived at the park around 3 p.m. and walked into the Visitor Center.  The first time I was here, in 1985, this building was the Lighthouse Keeper’s house, but the lighthouse has since been automated so they apparently converted the house into a Visitor Center, which was staffed by two 50ish guys.  I told them about my trip, visiting all 16 extreme geographic compass points of the contiguous United States and mentioned to them that not only is Quoddy Head the easternmost point in the United States, it’s also the east-southeasternmost point, something they didn’t realize. 

These were points #12 and 13 for me, of the 16 extreme compass points in the United States.  The last three points – the southernmost, southeasternmost and east-southeasternmost points of the U.S. – were in Florida and I planned to visit them later in the fall.

There was a school field trip at Quoddy Head that afternoon and several dozen middle schoolers were running around the grounds having a great time – perhaps some future extreme geographers among them.  The park quieted down after they left and after the Visitor Center closed at 4 p.m., there were only a few others left at the park, including a friendly, middle-aged couple from Alabama who told me this was their first trip to the Northeast.  I stayed at the park for nearly two hours on this beautiful, sunny afternoon soaking in the extremeness of this place while feeling the ocean breeze and listening to the gulls.

I finally left the park shortly before it closed at 5 p.m., apparently the last person to visit that day, then I drove about four miles to Lubec, Maine (pop. 1,359), which sits at the entrance of beautiful Cobscook Bay and is the easternmost city in the United States.  I walked around Lubec a bit in the dusk and on my way out of town, stopped at the IGA, which is the easternmost grocery store in America.  And there I bought a rotisserie chicken for dinner – but not just any rotisserie chicken, mind you, but the easternmost rotisserie chicken in the warming stand.

The sun was now setting and I backtracked up Highway 1 and pulled into Cobscook Bay State Park, a few miles up the road.  I’d camped here twice before:  in 1985 during my first visit to Maine and again in 1995 during a six-month road-trip around America, so the place was like an old friend.  The park sits on tranquil and rocky Cobscook Bay and has some of the most amazing waterfront campsites I’ve ever seen, and fortunately there were very few campers that evening so I had my pick of spots.  I chose the same campsite where I’d stayed in 1995, just a few feet from the quiet waters, and lit a campfire and watched the stars – while, of course, eating my easternmost chicken.  

You can read more about my visit to the easternmost and east-southeasternmost point of the United States and see a video here.

Quoddy Head State Park in Maine